On a dark night last year, my closest friend Laura and I landed in Honolulu: backpacks, skateboards, and sleeping bags in tow.
I had just spent months toiling as an intern at a major publishing company in New York, freelancing and genuflecting to editors—not to mention moving from sublet to sublet. Something had to give. So after weeks of anticipation, Laura and I left New York behind, and flew west, back toward our native California, a view that melded from skyscrapers to corn-colored plains to snow-capped mountains, and beyond. When I opened my eyes some 11 hours later, I caught a glimpse of the most teal-blue waters I had ever seen — and my heart began to race.
We were about to embark on a month-long program called WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
I had no idea what to expect from my new adventure but was totally committed. I had to let go of fear and expectation, and trust that the coming four weeks were going to be the ride of my life.
Laura and I caught the first public bus to the North Shore, got off at Sunset beach in the pitch-black sky, and waddled up a long steep hill. Our surroundings were shrouded in darkness. We climbed about 200 DIY steps into a backyard jungle and arrived at our humble abode — a freshly built treehouse, where we would spend the next four weeks. Rain poured down, slicking our skin and hair, as we tried to acclimate, to rid ourselves of exhaustion and jet-lag. I was out of breath, tired and sweaty—slipping in the mud, dodging toads and lizards. Laura, a firecracker of a human being, usually ready for any challenge, was in the same state. Finally, we stabbed each other with a knowing look: What did we get ourselves into?
We awoke early to an amazing sunrise—breathtaking views of bright green lizards crawling along the wooden walls and the sight and sounds of waves crashing onto the sandy beach. After a refreshing organic breakfast and introductions to our gracious hosts, we were quickly orientated to our duties, and got started right away: planting veggies in the garden, chopping-down bamboo trees and coconuts, all the while learning about the native plants and maintaining a sustainable, organic lifestyle. There was something about chopping down trees with a machete that thrilled and empowered me.
After a full day of work, we met others from the Organic Farm—friends, who invited us to join them while hitching a ride to the best surfing locations along the North Shore. As we quickly discovered; there were multiple waves along the road to a surf town called Haleiwa. While packed into the back of a pick-up truck, we slowed at each potential locale and banged on the hood of the truck—signaling our approval to the driver. Nothing like surfing after spending the morning planting vegetables in the hot sun!
Needless to say, I quickly became infatuated with my new lifestyle.
All my pent-up anxiety melted away and I adopted the philosophy the locals seemed to live by: to live for each day. In fact, Laura and I created our own mantra, which served our purpose and enthusiasm: to just say yes. If a friend asked if we wanted to hike some illegal trails—the answer was: “Yes!” If we were asked to go skydiving—the answer was: “Yes!” If we were asked to sleep on the beach or bomb some local hills that were far too dangerous—the answer was: “Yes!”
Still, after just four days, I wrote in my journal: “I have been humbled by my romantic notion of living on a farm.”
Before leaving for Hawaii, I had this naïve impression of farming, sourced only from photos and books. I found that the reality far exceeded my imagination — but also fulfilled my initial dream for coming to Hawaii in the first place. Of course, living—laboring on a farm is hard work. I cleaned-out chicken coops, mowed lawns and handled a weed-whacker on heavy brush and unstable hillsides. I slept soundly every night, not only because I was exhausted, but also because I felt entirely emotionally-fulfilled whenever my head hit the pillow. At the end of every day, I could actually see and feel what I had accomplished with my own two hands. One night, my arms were so tired from chopping and cutting that I slipped on our tree-house ladder and tumbled down the entire set of steps—landing in the mud—enduring Laura’s laughter while praying I wouldn’t break any bones.
Of course, Laura and I both earned our fair share of cuts and bruises—bug bites and minor scrapes and tumbles at the skate park. Sometimes, we even got hurt while performing our actual farm chores. But when one of us went on the injury list—the other picked-up her slack and doubled-down on the workload. We had each other’s backs. I love a good challenge—risk-craving behavior, which gives me the sensations I need to conquer my fear and anxiety. This mentality was instilled in me growing up with two older brothers, who I was always trying to keep up with.
After the second week, Laura and I were invited to a dawn patrol on the west side of the island—a place we had heard-of but not yet seen.
We awoke at 4 am, piled into a huge RV, our boards in tow, and drove to the Westside for a unique sunrise, reef-bottom surf. It’s always a little scary surfing a new spot, especially in Hawaii’s most epic waves. The sky was still dark as we rolled up to the beach. Locals were already there, eager to share encouragement, knowledge and experience. I paddled out with my friend and fellow WWOOFer, the kind and knowledgeable Ruth who taught us all there was to know about gardening and the native plants.
We floated for a while, then caught a rushing wave — but instead of feeling fear, I was suddenly enveloped by an sense of calm. My anxiety melted away as I rode a powerful wave below the dark, starry sky. It was just me and the water, moving forward together. Feeling more confident, I paddled back out, past the rolling waves to the lineup spot, where I was greeted by several experienced surfers who smiled and nodded their approval. As I propped myself onto my board, the sun began to rise and the sky turned a light shade of pink and purple. I turned and saw the gorgeous west-side mountain range behind me, and like my friends, felt overwhelming emotion without having to speak a word. Looking back now, the moment reminds me of a poem I found in a book in Haleiwa by Lanakila Brandt:
To greet the sun as it rises—this was the tradition of the ancestors…Everyone would turn to the sun with prayers of love and gratitude because native practitioners believe that with the coming of the sun and the mana (life force) returns to Earth each day. With mana comes healing, growth, life itself, for all creatures and the Earth.
Often, we frequented a small inland town, called Wahiawa—a place we enjoyed for their abundant thrift stores. I bought books for 50 cents each, and took them to the local Surfer’s Coffee Bar, where I read for hours. On one afternoon, I had an epiphany, one that seemed to the define the journey I was on. While reading The Purpose Driven Life, recommended by my dad years earlier, I found a passage that read: “God planned this moment. It is no accident that you are here.” Immediately, I closed the book and meditated on this message — thankful for my month-long farming experience, and the new wisdom and maturity it had brought me. As I compared the the crowded, and sometimes confusing days I had spent in New York, to the serene hours spent on the Organic Plantation, I realized that in just a few short weeks I had learned to expand my vision, to seek knowledge and harmony — to bask in awareness without submitting to the constant invasion of accomplishment, materialism and networking.
Of course, this epiphany was just the seed of this growth, but I could never have planted it without going to Hawaii. WWOOFing was the exact experience I needed, at the exact time that I needed it: more than a vacation, but an immersion into a culture and a purpose. I found myself in emotional limbo, waiting to make an important decision. Do I stay in Hawaii or go back to New York? I had purchased a one-way ticket, in fact, in anticipation of this very dilemma.
I paused for a moment, then meditated quietly on the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, another favorite writer of mine:
“Find a zest for life that animates your soul.”
…. The harsh winter snow blankets the streets like rows of Midwestern quilts. I collect my coffee, adjust my scarf, and board the subway from Brooklyn, bound for Manhattan.
It feels good to be back in the city. I enjoy the daily grind — writing, exercising, and hanging out with Laura and other creative friends — all eager to continue their dreams — to make their mark on a world filled with energy, enthusiasm and aggression. New York is hard sometimes, but I can see the beauty in that now.
After all, life is not perfect, not even in Hawaii. But perfect moments can be found within it — or better yet, made. I know that now.
Hayley Hill is a writer/photographer from Los Angeles, currently living in Brooklyn, NY. She has a passion for the outdoors, adventuring and creating art through different mediums. In her free time, she loves doing yoga, dancing and hearing people’s stories. You can find more of her photographer at @hayhayhill on Instagram.